Originally posted on autoweek.com by Graham Kozak
Jeep celebrated its 75th birthday, which just so happened to coincide with the 50th annual Easter Jeep Safari, by bringing seven concept trucks to Moab. And then they invited us to trek out to Utah to check them out in person — and take each and every one of them for test drives. We happily accepted the offer.
One caveat: Jeep made it clear that our drive route was more of an opportunity for a “dynamic photo shoot” than a true test of an offroader’s skill and the vehicles’ capabilities. The real wheeling wouldn’t happen until later in the week, and not in concept trucks.
Even so, we wouldn’t exactly want to live at the end of the trails we explored in the septet of trucks — and we’re confident that they were more rugged than the sort of roads 95 percent of casual SUV owners will ever encounter, anyway. Here’s what we took away from a truly excellent day behind the wheels of some cool one-off Jeeps.
Behold, the Trailcat: The 707-hp Wrangler the world needed.
Jeep Trailcat: Exactly as silly as you thought it would be
Let’s get this out of the way: Jeep knows this thing is ridiculous. It doesn’t care, and neither do we — especially once we saw how well-executed the concept is. Far from cobbled-together, it’s a work of fabrication art, as clean and shiny underneath as it is up top. A smooth-shifting six-speed Getrag manual sourced from an older Ram, plus plenty of uprated truck components, channel its 707 hp to the ground without blowing anything up.
Now, we’re not sure exactly what you do with 707 hp on the trail, and Jeep is still trying to figure out how to put it to good use as well. We’d bolt on some big paddle wheels and hit the sand dunes, or maybe a mud bog; rocky Moab just isn’t a great match for this truck’s capabilities.
But the biggest surprise is that the Trailcat doesn’t try to kill you as soon as you fire it up. In fact, it’s downright manageable; just leave it in first gear and focus on the trail, letting its ample low-end torque drag you over rocks and up ledges. Given the drivability of the Challenger and Chargers built around the same motor, perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all.
We can’t get enough of that Kaiser grille. Apparently, neither can Jeep.
Jeep Crew Chief 715
As much as we love the Crew Chief 715’s Kaiser grille, the real attention-grabber has to be the 5-foot pickup bed out back. Fans have been clamoring for a modern Jeep pickup for ages, and if the Easter Jeep Safari concepts hint at what’s to come, well…
Here’s the thing about the Crew Chief, though: It’s big. In part because of the 4-inch lift and aggressive 40-inch military-spec NDT tires, yes, but also because you’re taking a four-door Wrangler and adding a 5-foot bed to it. The proportions work on the super-macho concept, but after crashing around in the Crew Chief, we think it might be a little bit too big to serve up Scrambler-style fun.
A more sensibly sized two-door Wrangler pickup suits our tastes just fine. Perhaps a slightly stretched, but not quite Crew Chief-sized, extended cab variant would be a nice compromise for 2017. Or whenever the next-gen Wrangler pickup will make its official debut.
We totally could have avoided that rock.
Jeep Shortcut: Shorter is better
In contrast to the Crew Chief, the Shortcut is delightfully small. It rides on a stock two-door Wrangler wheelbase, but it’s been shortened 26 inches overall. There’s no rear seat, but its cartoonish proportions more than make up for the omission; from the bright red color to the big 35-inch tires, this is the sort of Jeep a kid would draw if you gave him a box of crayons and asked him to draw a Jeep.
All this leads us to ask: If downsizing works for the Miata, why not for the Wrangler? If the next-gen Wrangler gets a little more compact and sheds some pounds where it really matters — up top — we wouldn’t exactly be mad. We’d probably retain that rear seat, though.
We didn’t push the Renegade Commander as hard as we did some of the other concepts, but it was still a pleasant surprise.
Jeep Renegade Commander: The secret’s in the swaybars (or lack thereof)
We’ve been more than a little skeptical about the Renegade’s off-road chops, even in Trailhawk guise. Sure, it’ll do all the things the typical driver could ever ask of it, but is it a real Jeep? To help answer that question, Jeep created the Renegade Commander. It’s a Renegade Trailhawk butched up with a 2-inch lift, which allows it to accommodate big 29.5-inch BFGoodrich tires wrapped around 17-inch Rubicon wheels.
The secret here, though, is the deletion of the sway bars, which gives the independent-suspended Renegade better wheel articulation — and thus, more freedom to move around on the rocks. Perhaps our bar was set a little on the low side, but we were frankly shocked at what we were able to do in this modified trucklet. Will it ever compete with a lifted Wrangler? Absolutely not, but there’s a lot more potential in this platform than we anticipated.
Of course, the swaybar delete comes at the cost of highway-speed stability. One possible compromise: An electronic swaybar disconnect system, like the one on the Wrangler Rubicon. This would give this little ute some much-needed off-road credibility. Someone, whether in the aftermarket world or at Jeep, should get on that ASAP.
Keep on minitruckin’.
Jeep Comanche: ¡Viva minitrucks!
As with the Renegade Commander, we weren’t expecting a whole lot from this one … but here’s another case of pictures not doing the effort justice. Goofy canvas top aside, this little pickup packs a lot of character, even if lacked refinement (its export-spec 2.0-liter diesel definitely smelled like an oil-burner and there was more than a little wheel rub thanks to its big 32-inch BFGoodrich tires). From the quick-and-dirty chopped top to the 5-inch stretch job, this thing was nowhere near as polished as, say, the Trailcat. But it was also a whole lot more stout than we expected, picking over rocks and climbing up steps with a torquey punch, and we dig its minitruck vibe.
According to Jeep, the Wrangler isn’t going anywhere — but we should expect to see more development on the smaller, unibody side of things. Is it too much to hope that such development includes a cheap, fun mintruck? We’ll also be waiting to see if the integrated front bumper winch makes it to the Mopar catalog; apparently it wasn’t as hard to tuck into the Renegade’s fascia as Jeep designers initially expected. Couple that with the swaybar disconnect kit, and you’ve got a subcompact offroader stew goin’.
Wranglers are like Lego for grownups, and the Trailstorm shows how far you can push customization just with Jeep performance parts.
We don’t have much to say about the Trailstorm, except that it succeeds in its role as a rolling demonstrator for what you can do with official Jeep Performance Parts and a sufficiently large budget. It doesn’t take a team of professional automotive designers to create the one-off Wrangler of your dreams, so what are you waiting for?
The wheels and soft top are both concept items; they may be coming soon to a Mopar catalog near you.
That’s one cute truck.
Jeep FC 150: Somebody build and sell these, please
The Jeep FC is like a life-sized stamped-metal Tonka truck; hearing the door thunk shut just once will transport you back to 1960. Why can’t today’s work trucks have this much charm? Probably because the CJ-5-based FC was, in the words of Jeep designer Mark Allen, basically a “tractor with a closed cab” — slow, cranky and hideously unsafe on the road to boot.
The FC 150 concept fixes the problem by taking the best parts of the FC (namely, its toylike looks) and mating them to a 2005 Wrangler chassis. It’s not quite a perfect union, at least at this point in its development; the cable shifter is dodgy and with practically no weight in the back and an extremely forward driving position, the rig feels more than a little unstable on the trail. You get used to the quirks quickly, but a little more development would probably help the cause.
It goes without saying that Jeep isn’t going to be cranking these out for sale, but we suspect there’s a healthy, untapped market for FCs — and Willys wagons and pickups — mated to Wrangler chassis. The combination of old-school character and relatively modern safety features like disc brakes, plus power from the celebrated Jeep 4.0-liter, could give those FC and Willys bodies rusting away in the high country a new lease on life.
Heck, you could probably even charge six figures for them.
A special guest appearance by the Nukizer concept from a few years back. Happy Easter, everyone!